Don’t worry. This article has nothing to do with the time pool. This has to do with the game flow.
You know what that image means: it’s time for random pontificational bulls$&%. And that means even I don’t quite know where this s$&% is going to go. Hell, I might as well be hosting this category on LiveJournal. Is that still a thing? How much did I date myself with that reference? Ah, who gives a f$&%.
Anyway, game flow and decision points. Let’s do this.
Obligatory List of Unrelated Gaming Experiences Inspiring My Thoughts on The Topic Du Jour
As you may know if you pay attention to me on Twitter, I’ve recently finished playing through the stealth exploration horror game Alien: Isolation. And that got me thinking a lot about stealth mechanics in video games. And, because I’m a role-playing gamer, that also got me thinking about RPGs and how they are the same as video games. And how they are different. But that’s not all.
Now, don’t ask me how this second bit happened, but I’ve also ended up seeing a few GMs run games. I wasn’t, like, watching actual plays or listening to podcasts or anything. Not at all. I don’t go in for that crap. No matter how much it might help me keep my finger on the pulse of what s$&% things people THINK pass for good game mastering. It just happened to work out that I happened to watch and/or listen to several GMs run games through various media.
Okay, I was honestly trying to figure out why one or two of my players are a little broken. See, whenever I run games for people and they do something dumb or s$&%, I know – I just KNOW – it’s because some crappy GM trained them to be stupid. And, fortunately, there’s a huge pool of crappy GMs who proudly publish their crappy GMing online like dogs rolling in their own feces.
Meanwhile meanwhile, I’ve also started studying a game I bought almost a year ago and never touched. The Lone Wolf Adventure Game. It’s a sort of light fantasy RPG that comes in a box instead of books and it’s based on a series of game books I absolutely loved when I was a kid. A game book, by the way, is kind of like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Same basic structure. You read a passage that tells part of the story and then you’re presented with a choice. If you want to, for example, try to negotiate with the disgruntled yak-man, you turn to passage number 382. If you want to flee instead, you turn to passage number 27. Then, you read that passage and it either kills you or tells you more of the story. Then, it presents you with another choice. Simple, right?
Game books, like the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and the Fighting Fantasy series by The Other Steve Jackson do the same thing. Except they also let you create a character, track their stats, gain equipment, and even carry your character from story to story. There’s a rudimentary combat game to play out when you’re in a fight. And there’s conditions set on some of the choices. You can only climb the cliff, for example, if you have a rope. And you can only talk to the spider-bear if you have the “speak to animals” special talent. They were a really cool gateway drug for RPGs as well as a fun way to pass the time if you didn’t have a GM.
What do all of these things have to do with each other? They have to do with how different games flow. And they highlight a key issue in role-playing games: decision points and how they are presented.
The Part Where I Explain Why This Topic is Worth Thinking About
Whether you’re running adventures, designing adventures, hacking the rules, or creating your own, you HAVE TO understand how the game flows. And honestly, it seems like a lot of gamers just f$&%ing don’t. Hell, I’ll admit I never put the spotlight on the game flow that I’m about to. And it seems like a lot of game designers didn’t either. While some games – I hate to admit that Dungeon World is one – while some games give a lot of thought to the flow of the game and codifying that flow, the biggest, most popular games really don’t. At all.
For example, I can almost guarantee you that any game that involves any system for overland travel gives ZERO THOUGHT to game flow. I’ll prove it a little later on. If they did, they would completely revamp their approach. The flow of the game should be built right into the rules. Because there’s no way around it. But it isn’t. And that leaves GMs confused as f$&% about when to roll dice and how to handle the passage of time in games like D&D and Pathfinder. Hell, I had to add a whole bunch of extra rules just to handle that s$&%. Because, news flash, there is NO F$&%ING CLOCK in D&D.
Managing the flow of the game is based on a keen understanding of decision points. Because decision points ARE the clock. They ARE the flow. Translating any other game experience to D&D requires you to understand that. But simply running games also requires you to understand that. If your players have ever been gormlessly staring at you at the end of a scene while you wait for one of the idiots to just TELL YOU WHAT THE PARTY DOES NEXT, well, that’s happening because YOU are not handling the decision points properly.
That’s why this s$&% is important.
Continuous Clocks with Slow Ticks
I realize I’m being very vague now with all of this decision point and flow nonsense. So, now that I’m done justifying the need for this essay, let me try to bring some solid concepts into this. Let’s talk about the flow of any given game. Let’s talk about game clocks.
First, let’s start with video games. Now, people with any technical know-how will tell you that a video game works a little bit like a strobe light. There’s a little ticking clock in your computer or video game console. And every time it “ticks,” the game does a whole bunch of math and figures out where everything is and what to draw and what’s happening and makes decisions for the NPCs and all that crap. And then it shows you all of those results. So, when you press the fire button, the game detects the button press and generates a bullet and gives it a speed and a direction. The next time the clock ticks, the game figures out where that bullet would be based on the speed, direction, and how much time passes between clock-ticks and it draws that bullet. Then, it checks to see if it hit anything. The clock ticks, it does that again. And so on. Thus, a video game is a series of frozen moments in time. It’s just that the moments in time happen so fast, you don’t notice them. Seriously, the game updates itself many times a second.
The practical upshot is that everything seems continuous. Assuming you’re not playing some boring, turn-based bulls$&% or whatever. You see things play out in real time. And you make decisions in real time. As you’re hiding under the desk behind the xenomorph, you can watch it walk past you. You can keep an eye on it as it turns the corner. You can listen to its footsteps fade. And you can decide when it’s safe to emerge from your hiding place.
That’s the flow of a real-time video game. It’s a continuous flow, no matter what the tech geeks will tell you. They are boring people anyway who live in worlds of numbers and semi-colons and half-spelled words and weird abbreviations instead of in a real world of practical experiences.
Now, the reason video games CAN be continuous is because (a) computers work very fast and (b) you can see, hear, and perceive everything happening with all of your senses as it happens. But, when it comes to a role-playing game or even a board game, that isn’t possible at all.
Hell, let’s look at a board game. Most board games actually work like very slow video games. The game is divided into turns and each turn represents a slice of the game during which actions are taken and resolved. Instead of a super-fast computer calculating and updating things moment by moment, human beings have to roll dice and move tokens and draw cards and read s$&% and all of that crap takes time. And that means a board game requires more granularity to it: to the time, to the actions, and to the space of the game world.
What do I mean? Well, moving around a haunted mansion in a video game involves you continuously moving. Within some very tiny technical limitations, you can start and stop moving wherever and whenever you want. Moment by moment. But the mansion in Clue has to be divided into spaces and you have to conform to those spaces. You can’t move part-way into a room. Moreover, you can react to someone else’s movement until everyone else has had a turn to move and it’s your turn again. Hell, that’s why pieces can usually move through each other in most board games. Because the game’s discrete clock doesn’t allow for you to stop, let me move aside, you to pass, and then let me return to the spot I was in except by wasting two entire rounds of action.
So, between turns, a lot happens and you can’t react to it until it has all played out. And most board games design their turn structures and rules around exactly that sort of flow. There’s a turn order to ensure all of the same steps get taken every turn. There’s ways to interrupt the turn order in many games to react to other players’ actions or sudden developments. That kind of thing.
The end result is something that, in terms of game time, is continuous. But the continuous action is played out as a series of freeze-frames while actions are resolved and the game is updated. Again, it’s like a strobe like. It’s just that a lot more happens between each flash of the strobe light.
And, in most RPG combats, things play out the same way. The otherwise continuous action is divided into discrete turns designed specifically to allow the players to participate in a continuous combat despite needing time to make decisions, move miniatures, describe actions, look s$&% up in books because people can’t just remember what their spells do or WRITE IT THE F$&% DOWN, roll dice, and have the outcomes of individual actions described.
In our minds, we string all of the actions of a D&D combat or a game of Pandemic into a continuous action scene or story. And we don’t think anything of it. We certainly don’t think about the weaknesses inherent in the approach, the sacrifices we have to make. We don’t think about the fact that we do give up our ability to react to things freely outside of some very specific rules. We can take opportunity attacks, sure, but when the ogre suddenly turns its attention on us and starts charging, we sure as hell can’t start running in the other direction trying to stay away from it even though it has to cover 30 feet of open ground and we were looking right at it as it snarled and glared at us and raised its weapon and took that first step toward us. It’s just something we lose out on. We lose the ability to react except in by way of some specific prescribed ways.
But what about the REST of D&D? The times OUTSIDE of the initiative order?
No Wait Time in D&D
Let’s talk about something you can’t do in D&D. Outside of combat, you can’t wait around for just the right moment. And that tells us everything we need to know about the flow of D&D and what really defines the weirdly ticking non-clock that drives it. What do I mean?
Let’s talk about Alien: Isolation. Alien: Isolation is a stealth exploration game in which you are trapped on a space station with an invincible alien that will kill you if it sees you. You spend a lot of the game hiding from the alien, waiting for it to go away, and hoping that it’s far enough away that it doesn’t hear you when you finally emerge from your hiding place. You also spend time creating distractions that pull the alien’s attention in some other direction so you can emerge from your hiding place and run to another hiding place. That sort of thing.
Now, it has been said that the key to making a good stealth game is “making waiting fun.” And that’s true. Because most stealth game-play is based on waiting for the right moment to act. And that’s something you can’t do in D&D? Why? Because the game’s flow doesn’t allow it.
Let’s say you’re hiding from the alien in D&D because your GM is the sort of a$&hole who brings sci-fi elements into fantasy and thinks Barrier Peaks was actually a fun adventure. How does that play out at the table? Well, you explain that you’ll hide under the table. Stealth is rolled vs. Perception or whatever. And then the GM tells you that you think you’ve managed to hide. Then, the GM says, “now what?” So, you explain you’ll keep hiding. The GM asks, “until when?” You say, “until it goes away.” The GM says, “how long will you wait?” DOES ANY OF THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? It happens all the f$&%ing time at RPGs.
Here’s why: because the game isn’t updated on a continuous basis and the player can’t see or hear what’s happening in the game world until the GM describes it. And many GMs won’t describe anything except in response to player choices. Which makes perfect sense! Because the game is about choice. But in this specific instance, that doesn’t work because the player wants to wait to make a choice until something changes but isn’t sure what that choice will because they aren’t sure what will change.
Now, some GMs are good enough to handle that scene better. They will say, “the alien looks around for a while and then walks down the hallway and turns a corner.” The player might say something like “can I still hear it?” The GM will roll a check. And gradually, there will come a point when the player decides it’s safe to move. Alternatively, the GM will say “the alien keeps prowling around at that spot, it doesn’t seem to be moving on,” hoping to prompt the player to take an action to distract it or escape. But there is always the danger the player says they will “keep waiting.”
Here’s the deal: many GMs get stuck in the trap of treating the game like a continuous clock with slow ticks. They understand time ticks differently outside of combat. That clock ticks can happen to cover minutes or hours or days. But they aren’t sure quite where the clock ticks SHOULD happen. The problem is, though, that outside of combat, the game isn’t at all turn-based. The game doesn’t proceed from player to player to player. And the game world doesn’t update itself at fixed intervals with the GM providing descriptions of the action after each clock tick.
And this gets highlighted whenever the players need to wait. Or whenever they need to not make a decision. If you watch any session of any RPG, the game slams into a f$&%ing brick wall whenever time has to pass or whenever a transition has to happen. For example, the players have just finished their briefing and now they have to move from the briefing scene to the door of the dungeon or whatever. Or whenever the players have to wait until nightfall to infiltrate the cult’s hideout. Or whenever the party needs to go to sleep for the night. The GM starts by saying something like “okay, what do you do” and the party goes “erm” and “uh” and says nothing. Or else, conversations will start about shopping for supplies or going to tavern or what things the party could be doing. Finally, the GM has to break in and say “look, if you none of you want to do anything, we can skip ahead to tonight, okay?” And the GM is always exasperated. Because the GM just wanted one idiot to say, “we wait until nightfall” so the GM could say “several hours pass and you gather together across the street from the cult hideout just as night is falling.” Why won’t one idiot just say, “we wait?”
PART of the reason has to do with the flow of the game. PART of it has to do with the way the GM frames decisions. And now we’re getting to the meet of it.
The Game-Bookishness of D&D
Here’s the deal: outside of structured, turn-based scenes, D&D is not continuous. Not remotely. It seems like it should be. GMs think it is. Players think it is. But it isn’t. There isn’t a metronome going back and forth saying “describe the scene, now ask Alice for actions, now resolve those actions, now ask Bob for actions, now resolve those actions, now describe the scene for the top of the next round…” and so on. The GM has to figure out when to narrate and when to ask for actions without any help from the game’s structure. And that can be hard because no one will tell you that.
The key is to look at game books. Because game gooks actually have a lot in common with the non-combat portions of D&D. Basically, a game book provides a narrative description for a scene. Then, it provides the player an opportunity to make a choice. It describes the outcome of that choice. Then, it provides a transition. Then, it describes a narrative description for the next scene. The individual narrative elements might cover seconds or hours or days. They might even fade to black and come back after skipping days of time. More importantly, they ALWAYS stop with a choice. And once a choice is made, they ALWAYS describe a change in the world and don’t stop describing until there’s another CHOICE.
If the game book were to present the alien encounter, it would do something like this.
“As you turn the corner, an alien drops down from a ceiling vent in front of you. It’s just feet away but it’s looking in the wrong direction. You have just seconds to react. What do you do? If you flee, turn to page 11. If you hide under the desk, turn to page 27. If you fire your gun at the alien, turn to page 73. If you try to make it to the doorway to your left, turn to page 91.”
And then, on page 27, it might say this:
“You hide under the desk. The alien turns and looks around. It seems to suspect someone is prowling around, but it has no idea where you are. It’s just standing there, looking around. What do you do? If you keep hiding, turn to page 62. If you fire your gun at the alien, turn to page 73. If you try to dash for the door when it turns its head, turn to page 16.”
If you keep hiding, the alien might start to walk away and you might be allowed to keep hiding or emerge. If you keep hiding after that, the book will probably say “you wait for several minutes as its footsteps fade into silence and then finally emerge from your hiding place. You’re in a hallway with a door to your left…” and so on.
The point is, the game book only pauses in its narration when there is a decision to be made. And once a decision is made IN THE MOMENT, the game book provides a narration in response and then keeps going until there is another decision to be made. If there is NO decision, the game book doesn’t tick the clock. It keeps narrating until the next decision. If there IS a decision, the gamebook provides feedback on that decision and then starts narrating again until the next decision.
Duh. I hear you saying it now. Duh. Who doesn’t know that’s how an RPG works? That isn’t what causes those weird pauses in the action. Well, some people actually DO need to be told that, first of all. And second of all, that isn’t the WHOLE STORY. Like I said, that flow is only half the issue. The other half is recognizing decision points and knowing how to present them.
When and How to Ask For Choices
A decision point arises whenever the players have to make a decision, right? That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Well, then, why do so many people f$&% it up? For example, imagine the party has to make a three-day journey from Onett to Twoson. At the outset, they decide a marching order, they decide who is narrating, who is foraging, and who is keeping a lookout. They set a watch order for camp. And they decide to go at a normal pace. Decision made, they set out. When is the next time the GM should ask them what they do? WHEN THEY REACH F$&%ING TWOSON!
Seriously. All the decisions have been made for the next three days. Assuming nothing changes those decisions stand. Even if they have a random encounter during the trip, nothing has changed. Even if they take a short rest after the encounter, nothing has changed. Unless their navigator is f$&%ing dead or they end up f$%&ing lost, those three days should simply be narrated. Random encounters may interrupt the trip, but after the encounter, the party should simply be able to keep going. Night and day should pass in a blur. Only the exciting bits should need any time at all. And if any die rolls need to happen, just pause the action for a moment to make the rolls and then keep going.
Here’s the problem. GM’s LOVE asking for actions. And when they ask for actions, they LOVE asking open-ended questions like “what do you do now?” That’s because GMs are f$&%ing terrified of not giving their players TOTAL FREEDOM TO DO ANYTHING AT ANY TIME! Because otherwise RAILROADING ARGLE BLARGLE WARGLE!
So, the first mistake GMs make is asking the players to make non-decisions. For example, after that random encounter, many GMs will say “what do you do now?” And that creates that sudden halt in the action. Because all of the players just want to keep going, but none of the players wants to deny any other player the chance to do anything else. Eventually, someone will say “is everyone okay to keep going,” and someone else will say “Bob, you lost a lot of hit points, are you okay,” and Bob will say “well, I could take a short rest and recover most of them, we should save our healing,” and then this long, drawn our conversation happens during which the PLAYERS are talking about the GAME but the action isn’t moving forward. The same happens every goddamned morning when the players break camp. The GM asks the players “what do you do,” instead of telling them “you continue your journey on the second day…”
That isn’t to say the players shouldn’t have the chance to make different choices or change their minds. But GMs have to understand a couple of things. First of all, continuing a declared action is NOT a decision. It’s a non-decision. Second of all, asking the players an open-ended question like “what do you do” implies to the players there is an important decision to be made and that their previous choices have somehow been invalidated. Third of all, asking the players to act as a group with a general question triggers all sorts of group decision-making weirdness that I need a whole other article to discuss. Fourth of all, in many situations, the players do not tend to think of waiting or otherwise not acting is a decision. And fifth of all, most players are very uncomfortable with open, unconstrained decisions.
That last thing is extremely important and so many GMs try to deny it. In general, you are always better off presenting a few firm, concrete options than offering the players the world. But you also have to remind the players that they can have the world if they want it.
For example, in the role-playing game version of the alien encounter, when the alien first drops out of the ceiling, the best way a GM can present that situation is to say: “the alien drops out of the ceiling in front of you. There’s a desk nearby you can hide under and there’s also a doorway to the left, but it’s a short dash away. You could also try to run or even try to fight if you want. What would you like to do?”
If the player successfully hides, the GM can present the next choice thusly: “you seem to have hidden successfully, but the alien is just prowling around. It doesn’t look like it’s going to move away, but you can wait to see what it does. That door is still nearby and you might be able to make it there when the alien turns away. But if you want to move farther than that, you’ll need a clever plan. What do you do?”
Notice how the GM presents a few obvious choices, including calling out WAITING as a choice and also reminds the player that they can try anything they want. The creative players will seize on those opportunities happily, regardless of what other options you give them. The rest of the players will be much less likely to get paralyzed with indecision.
Now, I realize I’ve said all of this before. Sometimes, some things bear repeating. But there’s more to it this time. Because the important thing to recognize is that if you want the players to be able to take any actions at all, you have to insert actual decision points. And the more decisions you can insert into the game, the better off you are.
How many GMs, for example, would have just had that alien drop into the alien and then started a combat? As the GM, your narration provides the characters with everything they know about the world but it also allows them to react. If you don’t stop after the alien drops but BEFORE it sees the players, you’ve robbed them of a split-second decision they could make. This is precisely the same f$&%ing thing as when I told you to use the “click!” or “reaction” rule to let players react to traps the moment they go off instead of just demanding they roll a saving throw.
Here’s the thing: you should be looking to slam the brakes on the narration and insert a decision point every goddamned moment you can. You should be driving your game like a student driver with a foot on the gas and the other on the brake. AS LONG AS THEY ARE REAL DECISIONS.
The alien appears, make a decision. The alien looks around, make a decision. The alien starts moving toward your hiding place, make a decision. The alien starts moving away again, make a decision.
And when there isn’t a decision to be made, move the game along to the next decision with narration.
But that’s not all. You also have to be willing to make some decisions for the party. Specifically, transitional decisions and non-decisions. For example, after the briefing scene, you need to be willing to tell the party flat out that they decide to go to the door of the dungeon. When the party spends three days traveling, you have to be willing to tell them they keep traveling. The players aren’t good at making non-decisions and they are terrible at making decisions as a group. The trick is to use firm options, opt ins, and opt outs.
For example, after a combat, ask the party flat out if they’d like to take a short rest or take some other option. After that random encounter on the road, you should say “you killed the monsters. Do you want to take a short rest or are you ready to continue your journey?” That gives firm options. The group can make a quick decision to either take a short rest or not. If they don’t, they continue moving the way they were. And if they want to change their mind, they can. Alice can say, “we should keep going, but I’m too beat up to take the point, someone move up front, I’ll watch our flank.” Most players don’t need permission to modify their actions. Just an opportunity.
Likewise, when it comes to things like waiting until a specific time or gathering at the city gate or moving to the entrance to the dungeon, that’s a great time for an opt-out decision. An opt-out decision is where you tell the party what’s going to happen unless someone objects. “If none of you have any other business, you’ll just wait out the next few hours.” You just need to give a moment for players to speak up. If no one does, move along to the next scene and the next decision point. And opt-in decision follows the same basic framework, except it tells the players what won’t happen unless someone does speak up. For example: “unless anyone takes the opportunity to ask the sage any questions, the sage will be on his way.”
Opt-ins and opt-outs help move the game along when decision points or weak or when you want to give the players the opportunity to take non-actions or stop assumed actions. But the important thing to remember is that they aren’t really decision points in and of themselves. They are merely opportunities for the players to insert their own decision points into the game.
Embracing Both Clocks
Obviously, understanding the two different ways RPGs flow – as a slow-ticking continuous clock in combat and as a series of narratives halted by decision points outside of combat – understanding that flow is vital to running a good game. And when you understand how to properly present decision points and look for opportunities to break your scenes down by adding MORE decision points, you’re going from good game to great game territory. But I didn’t start laying this out with an eye toward helping GMs run better games. After all, a lot of what I’ve said here is stuff I’ve said before in different ways over several articles across the years. I started this off because it can help build better mechanics.
For example, if you want to build a good stealth scene in D&D – or, say, if you’re looking to hack a stealth module into D&D – it’s important to accept the Game Bookishness of D&D and think in terms of where the decision points lie in a stealth section. Where, for example, might people choose to act? Where do the stopping points – the decision points – lie in that alien scene. If you had to list the decision points in that scene, what would they be? When the alien first appears, when you first evade its notice and hide, when it moves toward your hiding place, when it appears to have noticed you, when it moves away from you, when it is out of sight, and when it is out of earshot.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s also understanding that the game has two different flows. For example, a stealth game might benefit from a rigid turn order. Rigid turn orders offer possibilities like continuous, granular updates to the situation and also make the possibility of not-acting (i.e.: waiting) much more obvious simply by explicitly allowing you the chance to “pass your turn.” Understanding that dichotomy means initiative and the turn-structure are more tools you can add to your toolbox. Is this scene one I should run on a continuous clock or as a series of decision points? Each has different mechanical needs, strengths, and weaknesses. And you can argue whether a stealth scene, a chase scene, an infiltration scene, an escape scene, or whatever belongs in either purview.
Does that mean I’m abandoning the time pool idea? Not at all. In a sense, this is just another outgrowth of the problems that required the time pool. Outside of combat, D&D has nothing built into it that works like a clock, but it does have a lot of things that RUN on a clock. In a sense, the time pool simply creates a band-aid to align the decision point stuff to the crappy clock the game demands you keep running in the background. Because the timing mechanics in D&D are really, REALLY s$&%. But that’s an article for another time.